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Blidworth, before and after the mine.
 
Member, John Durkin, gave this article as a talk to the Society. He had twenty years experience of working at Blidworth Colliery before it closed and is therefore well placed to be able to combine his own knowledge with that of others to give us an insight into the Colliery’s beginnings, it’s workings and aspects of how the village changed over time. John thanks Bill Richards, our President and local historian, who at nearly 96 years of age was able to pass on many memories of Blidworth. 

Blidworth, before and after the mine.

Blidworth, like many small villages at the turn of the 20th century was sparsely populated. Around 1890 the population was barely 1000, and even by 1921 it was only 2000.

There were only 150 houses or so in the village 20 years before coal was sought, and most of them were in the old village. It is likely that farm work was the main source of employment. 26 farms were listed at this time. It is known that children worked on the farmland and that the work was seasonal. Many folk grew their own vegetables and kept chickens in their gardens. Also, smallholdings and allotments were used to help to be self-sufficient. There were several small shops in and around the village, among them, shoe and boot-makers, the blacksmith, and a fellmonger, who dealt in skins and hides.

It was the Newstead Colliery Company that wanted to sink a mine in Blidworth. The company already had mines at nearby Linby and Newstead, and the Bolsover company had a new mine at Rufford.

So, what impact did the prospect of coal mining have on Blidworth? Some men from the village were already working at these new mines. Bill Richard’s father was one, having found work in the sawmill at Rufford Colliery. Some men would walk to work at Linby and Newstead, but Bill can recall canvas covered wagons taking men to Rufford.

Shaft sinkers were recruited, some were local men, but there were some who came from southern Ireland. Some of these men lodged with Bill’s parents and he told me they were hard to understand, with their Irish brogue. Nevertheless, they were honest hard working men, who, no matter the weather, would walk to Mansfield and back each Sunday morning to attend church.

The job of shaft sinking was incredibly hard, and dangerous work. They men had to wear oilskins to protect themselves from the continuous flow of water. Fresh in their memories must have been the 1913 disaster at Rufford colliery. Whilst sinking the shaft, 13 sinkers were killed when a huge water barrel broke free when being drawn up the shaft. I believe that most of them drowned.

The Newstead colliery company acquired 220 acres of land off Belle Vue lane to construct the mine, housing and facilities. They purchased 3 farms to accommodate 160 acres that would be needed for spoil heaps (pit tips).

They paid  £16,000 for one farm, which today would equate to around 3.5 million pounds.

The total spent was £625,000.

The new mine would be named Newstead Colliery No 2. The mining engineers had done their homework. They knew that the lucrative top hard seam was present at Newstead, just Three miles to the west of Blidworth. The seam was at a depth of 600 yds, and 6ft in thickness. The Bolsover Company had reached the seam at the same depth, and similar thickness at Rufford, Two miles north of Blidworth. Also in 1907 the Oxton borehole, Three miles south east of Blidworth, had proved the seam as being at 677 yds.

With this knowledge, it was deemed that there was no need to prove the top hard seam by way of sinking a borehole. This, as we shall see later was a mistake that could not have been foreseen.

Therefore with everything seemingly in place, shaft sinking commenced on 1st august 1923, with the top hard seam reached on 15th January 1926.

I have already mentioned that the coal that would be mined was the top hard seam, of which the mining engineers were confident was present at around 600 yds. Numerous other coal seams were passed over during the sinking, as the top hard was the target.

When the sinking reached the assumed depth of the top hard seam there was no sign of coal at this depth. Clearly there was something amiss, and they decided that they would press on. With each passing day, and no sign of coal, rumours were abound that the company would abandon the project.

Finally, coal was reached, at a depth of 721yds and with a thickness of just 4ft. A natural faulting had occurred in the coal seam between Blidworth and Rufford, with a displacement of 100yds. Undoubtedly the company had bad luck in not choosing to sink a borehole at Blidworth. This faulting could not have been foreseen. Nevertheless they had invested heavily, so they would continue. 800 men were recruited, and 840 of a proposed 1200 houses, were built for the men and their families.

With the prospect of work and a house, men came from far afield to work at Blidworth. Durham, Wales, Staffordshire, and Derbyshire men were attracted to the pit. Sadly, for many of them their stay would be a short one. After only 2 years the faulted ground proved too difficult to work, so on September 8th 1928, notice was given to 800 men and boys to finish. The company retained 84 men to carry out essential work, and some men found work at nearby collieries. Those that could not find work were forced to return home.

The pit was mothballed for just over 2 years, and empty houses in the village were boarded up. Bill, who would be 12 or 13 at the time, recalls the roads and gardens being overgrown with weeds, and with the absence of streetlights the village was a desolate place.

With better technology, and advancement in more modern machinery the colliery did reopen in 1931. The population had risen to 5,300, with 3000 associated with the coalmine.

The coal that was important to the investors was the top hard seam. It is bituminous and valuable. It has many properties, being excellent for steam raising. The steel industry and railways used the coal, as did power stations and smokeless fuel producers, such as Rexco. As many as 200 by-products can be got from coal. Bob Bradley, who kindly provided me with this information, recalls such a by-product made at Welbeck. It was called "white spirit", and retailed at 1s/3d a gallon (7p). It was ‘petrol’ produced from coal. Undoubtedly, the key factor for the coal’s saleability was its effectiveness for steam raising.

The years leading up to the start of the 2nd World War were difficult for the coal industry, due to suppressed markets. However the pit survived as coal became vitally important as the war neared.

Socially, during the pre war years, conditions improved for the miners, with the building of the miners welfare and sports grounds, and at the pithead, baths were built.

The importance of coal during the war years forced the government to introduce "the restriction of engagement order" which prevented men leaving the mines. The pithead and headstocks would be an obvious target for the German bombs, although surprisingly there are no recorded hits on Nottinghamshire pits. A friend of mine, whose opinion I value thinks that there was a pact between the allies and Germany not to bomb the pits. Safety measures were introduced, all mines had connecting roads to other mines, should the headstocks be bombed. Emergency water tanks were positioned close to the pit bottom.

Blidworth had a road through to Newstead pit.

The village had a small contingent of the home guard, which would, on Sunday mornings, carry out manoeuvres including the mounting of a spigot anti-tank gun close to where the Jolly Friar pub is. Although felled trees and undergrowth cover it, I believe the spigot mounting is still there. Gordon Turner also has told me that he remembers another spigot mounting, close to the path near the old Welfare.

So great was the need for coal to support the war effort, the government in 1943 introduced a law that every 10th conscripted man would do his military service down the mines. The minister responsible was Ernest Bevin, and these men became known as "Bevin Boys". Blidworth had its share of Bevin boys; men such as John Woods, who worked as a farmhand in Norfolk, Harry Shilling, a cockney lad, and as far as I know, the only surviving Blidworth Bevin boy, Bob Slingsby who lives at Rainworth.

After the war, around 1947, Polish exiles came to work at Blidworth. They were hard working men and their broken English was the butt of many a joke! 1952 was the year Blidworth employed its highest number of men, 1,911.

There was never this amount of lockers at the pithead baths, so some men shared a locker. Usually, but not always, father and son would share. You can only imagine how unpleasant this must have been.

I'm not too sure when the pit ponies came out of the pit, I think it was the late 1950's or early 60's. There were underground stables in the pit bottom, but I have been reliably informed that they were brought to the surface each day. I was just 15 when I started the pit in 1969 and it was compulsory to do a few weeks induction at Crown Farm Colliery before you could start at your own pit.

At this time men did not have the orange work wear, which wasn't worn until the late 1970's. So men wore clothes of their own; there were some right rag and bone men around! One thing I do remember is how old some men seemed to be, my grandfather was an old man, and some men looked older than him.

The N.C.B, later to become British Coal, seemed to place great emphasis on safety in the 70s and 80s and appointed safety officers to work with the teams of miners. There were even league tables, showing each pits accident rate in the area. All coalmines, under legislation, had to adhere to safety laws, and H.M Mines Inspectors would visit the mines. When the colliery manager knew the inspector was to visit, it was quite comical. A fine white powder, called ‘stonedust’, which was used to suppress the effect of a methane explosion, was scattered on every square yard where it was known the inspector was to go. It looked like it had just snowed!

There were of course many important safety issues, fire fighting equipment was kept close to the coal face and at vulnerable spots, ‘stonedust’ was positioned on suspended barriers to help suppress an explosion, and methane was pumped out of the waste as the coalface advanced. If the barometer indicated low pressure then methane levels would rise and sometimes production would cease.

Carbon monoxide was also a real concern to miners. In 1950, 80 men lost their lives at Cresswell colliery, all to the effects of carbon monoxide. A conveyor belt caught fire and all men working the wrong side of the fire died. Following the disaster at Cresswell new safety measures were introduced. One such measure was the fireproofing of all timber going down the mine. It wasn't until 1972 that a carbon monoxide ‘self-rescuer’ was available, and it was compulsory for all men to carry one.

There were other incentives for miners to be safety conscious, with good prizes for fire fighting competitions. First aid teams also held competitions, and each colliery had it's own mines rescue team.

The 1970's were a pivotal decade for the mining industry, with damaging strikes in 1972 and 1974. We had a 3-day week and a forced General Election; these strikes would not be forgotten and the strike of 1984 would be the last. Also in 1970 -1976, miners were first offered their colliery houses for as little as £2500. By the start of the 1980s Arthur Scargill and the N.U.M. had wind of plans to close some pits and you may remember Scargill coming to Blidworth to drum up support to fight these planned closures.

As with all heavy industrial work; and Blidworth was no exception, there were many injuries and fatalities.

My research into fatal accidents at the pit, show that on July 23rd 1933, Sam Ratcliffe, was the first of 22 men to lose their lives at Blidworth, and on 14th august 1977, Ken Juckes was the last. There is no record of any men being killed on the surface. Perhaps the accident on Whit Sunday morning, 6thJjune 1943 was the most tragic in the pits history. Three young blacksmiths, whilst carrying out an examination of the shaft, fell from mid shaft (360 yds) to the bottom and were instantly killed.

The colliery finally closed on 1st march 1989. Some men accepted the redundancy terms, others moved on to other pits, only to see them close as well. Today there are only 6 pits in the country.

Although the mine was the major employer in the village, the pit wasn't the only place where Blidworth folk worked. With improved bus and transport services, other work became available.

The area had many other major employers. There was the Metal Box Company, Mansfield Shoe Co, Mansfield Hosiery Mills, the post-office, Courtalds, plus many others in close proximity to Blidworth. So the mines were not the only option.

Blidworth, before and after the mine.

What changes have there been in the 22 years since the pit closed?
There have been many changes in the village, since the pit closed 22 years ago, a generation has passed, and some adults and children know little of the history of the village and the time coal was mined. 

There have been many changes to the structure of the village; perhaps one of the most significant buildings to disappear was the once proud Miners Welfare.  Sadly, the building was left empty for over 20 years, and it became a real blot on the Blidworth landscape. People approaching the village for the first time, from the east side, would be welcomed by a derelict ruin that had turned green with moss and dirt. It must have been embarrassing for the bowling, cricket, and football clubs to host matches in the shadow of the old welfare. Now, a print company and a special needs care home share the site.

The youth club and a practice room for the brass band stood just below the bowling green, with a 5 a side and netball court. The band room and old youth club are now part of the social centre. In 1986, 3 years before the pit closed the new fire station opened, also soon after, the Blidworth Community Centre was built.
One of the most diverse shops in the village closed soon after the pit closed Cherokee next to the paper shop, where you could buy anything from a ball of wool to a school uniform.

Another fine building that was demolished was the old cinema. Before it was knocked down it became a snooker club.
Two more buildings on Mansfield Road would see change. The doctor’s surgery and chemist were rebuilt.
Blidworth has long had a ‘fish and chip’ shop, and now, like most villages we have a ‘Chinese’ and ‘pizza’ takeaway.

Further down Mansfield Road, where the flower shop now is, there were three popular businesses. The post office, the butchers, owned by Tommy Musson, and a car salesroom and garage, which was run by Nick Ackerman. Nick had a wonderful house built to the rear of the post office; ‘Hatzfeld house’, now a private nursing home.

Once Blidworth fire station and now the Old Fire Station Nursery is the next building to have changed along Mansfield Road. The fire station, as it is now, was manned by retained fire fighters, many who were shift workers at the pit. Today, men are called to the station by electronic sounders, a far cry from the times when the siren at the top of the tower, would summon men to the old station. This would be day or night and was repeated if enough men did not respond.

This wasn't the only siren in the village. When the pit was steam powered the hooter was sounded at regular intervals to call men to work. The first blast of the day was at 5am, and then again when the afternoon shift were due. If you overslept, you didn't want to get up, I lived at Rainworth and could hear it!

The snooker club (once the cinema) and the Forest Folk, have all gone. One club that did survive under many guises, was "Smithy’s Club". It remained as a private club, behind the old cinema until the mid 1970's.
Another private nursing home was built at the end of Kirby Close, off Haywood Oaks Lane. The old vicarage was converted into a nursing home. The Community Church next to Three Ways Garage, was rebuilt and modernised, and Tesco Express is now where the Forest Folk stood.

New houses have been built in the village. On the site of the old cinema and the old pit car park. Houses and flats have been built on Belle Vue Lane; ‘Poppy Fields’ estate behind the fish shop and many ‘new builds’ in the old village, including some past the church.

There have been many changes to the village since the mine closed, and no doubt there will be many more. In my talk I have tried to encompass history and fact, as well as my own experiences of the time I have worked and lived in Blidworth.
John Durkin. 2011.